Beyond the Internship: Unveiling the Full Spectrum of Work-Based Learning Opportunities

14 Nov 2022

Brett Doudican, a DoD STEM Ambassador, Explains How Work-Based Learning Benefits Students and Business

Q. “Work-based learning” is one of the latest education buzzwords circulating in professional STEM education circles—but what does it mean beyond internships? A. Work-based learning provides a full spectrum of student activities, processes and experiences that blur lines between real work and education.

The following was written by Brett Doudican, a curriculum specialist and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Doudican was selected by Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2021-2022 school year.

Business and industry leaders meet routinely with education leaders to discuss gaps in workforce development. Industry leaders want to shorten the time it takes to graduate fully productive workers by aligning student education with industry needs such as skills in project management, leadership, new technology or foundational academics. Education leaders focus on student needs and state expectations and have limited education time and resources. I’ve attended dozens of these meetings. From where I sit, the major problem with this approach is that each side puts their grievances on the table and then walks away without addressing how to teach these skills! The meeting the next year covers the same ground. There is a solution: full-spectrum work-based learning addresses the how. To succeed, this approach requires dedicated support from industry and education decision-makers.

When most people hear the words “work-based learning” they typically understand this to mean internships alone. I’d like to share examples about how a broad range of experiences can progressively blur the lines between education and workforce resulting in more qualified workers showing up sooner. Although educators, students, parents and industry have incentives to make these experiences successful, significant investment by all stakeholders is required. As a curriculum specialist at a career technical school, I have worked with several partners during the past five years to raise this bar. We have made great progress, and yet there is still much work to be done.

To illustrate the full range of work-based learning, I’d like to share an example from one of our partners. Defense Plastics (a pseudonym) makes plastic injection molds for various defense industries — mostly in prototyping, not mass production. Defense Plastics works with customers in house through each step: product design, computer numerical control (CNC) mold design, production, material testing and redesign. It is a partner (meaning it attends the meetings mentioned earlier) in our Advanced Engineering Systems program and engages at every level of work-based learning. Defense Plastics provides multiple touch points to engage students in a progressive engineering program in 11th and 12th grade as outlined below in order of events:

  • Classroom presentation: The Defense Plastics CEO conducts a presentation detailing how the business works, including workplace expectations. Highlights include “wow factor” artifacts produced by the company.
  • Field trip and job shadow: Defense Plastics brings students to the shop for a tour and allows any student to sign up to job shadow (our program requires all students complete three job shadows before they graduate).
  • Simulated workplace: Defense Plastics engineers share a simple but real customer project for students to complete in the classroom with available technology and equipment. The engineers outline expectations including design specs and timeline. The teacher assigns students to teams. Defense Plastics engineers mentor students and evaluate progress. The team with the best design receives gift cards in return for its work.
  • School-based enterprise: Students use some of the skills gained from these projects to create holiday ornaments that are sold as a community fundraiser. Defense Plastics routinely purchases a bulk order to give to their employees.
  • Career portfolio prep: The Defense Plastics CEO provides students feedback on resumes and cover letters and sits in on mock interviews. He also is a judge on a Shark Tank–style design competition.
  • Summer internship: Students can interview for the one to two summer internships offered each year.
  • Job placement: During senior year, students could qualify for early release to work half days two to three times a week instead of attending class. The company, school administrators, parents, guidance counselors, students and instructors sign off on a training plan that aligns technical content with work to be undertaken by students. Students’ direct supervisor completes a biweekly evaluation (which factors into their grades), and the teacher and Defense Plastics representatives hold monthly face-to-face meetings.

This partnership requires a significant commitment from the business partner but yields incredible results for both the business and students. There is almost no time lost in developing productive employees, and students gain valuable experiences that blur the lines between education and their full-time career. When students are engaged in meaningful (and paid) work, their education becomes more valuable to them, and we typically see students double down on their academics. Some commitment, flexibility and creativity can create mutually beneficial experiences that meet the needs everyone talks about in those meetings but struggles to produce.

About DoD STEM and Defense STEM Education Consortium

Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) is a collaborative partnership of STEM-focused organizations dedicated to addressing and prioritizing our nation’s STEM talent. DSEC aims to broaden STEM literacy and develop a diverse and agile workforce with the technical excellence to defend our nation. Through strategic investment in STEM education and outreach activities, the effort will provide students with more exposure to educational and career opportunities as well as DoD research. DSEC is led on behalf of DoD STEM by RTI International.

About Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM

The goal of the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES) is to work with school districts to ensure that all young people complete their secondary and postsecondary education “STEM ready.” This vision is intentionally inclusive of all students and reflects the inequity of access to learning. TIES defines success not by whether students choose to pursue STEM careers but by whether they have been provided high-value, relevant education that allows them to graduate with the skills and knowledge to make informed choices. TIES’s role in DSEC is to expand partnerships between numerous TIES ecosystem projects and DoD laboratories.